[Warning: The blog post below may contain unpopular opinions or truths that are painful to hear. This is one of my total honesty moments and comes from my personal experience in publishing. Your mileage may vary. Read at your own risk.]
I had an interesting Twitter conversation about online promotion yesterday. There was a mild disagreement. My perspective is that of a mid-list (occasional extended bestseller list) author, who’s expected to do most of her own promotion. This is common. Only the biggest authors get major pushes from publishers.
The assumption that started the conversation (paraphrased): Authors can greatly influence their own sales through personal online promotion. By that I mean Tweeting, blogging, chatting making (or hiring out) book trailers, blog tours, and giving away books online. I’m even willing to throw in in-person appearances and swag mailings, though those—obviously—aren’t online promotion.
The fact (at least in my experience): In most cases, there is little-to-nothing, in terms of promotion, an author can personally do to make his/her own book a huge success.
True, online promotion can expose you to potentially thousands of people who’ve never heard of you or your books. But that’s the best case scenario. Even assuming the best case scenario actually happens, if the only books you sell are to the 5,000-10,000 people who follow you online, your book is not a huge success. (If you have more followers than that, and they weren’t gained through the false-positive “I follow back” method, chances are that you’ve already sold a lot of books.) Even if your online promotion results in an extra 5,000-10,000 copies sold, and that doubles your sales, your book is not a huge success. It’s not even a big success. And it’s only considered a moderate success if you received a small advance (or no advance), because that means your publisher probably isn’t losing money on you.
The truth is that very successful authors don’t sell thousands of books. They sell hundreds of thousands of books. Sometimes millions of books. And the authors who have hundreds of thousands (or millions) of online followers only have that many online followers because they sell a ton of books. That looks like this:
(Cause) Sell a ton of books -> (Effect) Gain a ton of followers
It doesn’t work the other way around. It just doesn’t. No non-celebrity author has 300,000 legitimate* Twitter followers before s/he sells 500,000 books.
If you ask the average reader (not the average book blogger, but the average reader) how often s/he spends online looking up her favorite authors, entering contests, and reading reviews, that average reader is going to say, “Not much.” The fact is that most readers—even those who now read ebooks—will never follow an author online. He or she may go to the author’s website to find out what else is available. But that’s the end of it for most readers.
[Note: Bloggers are the exception. Heavy internet users are another exception. Those are NOT the majority of readers, and we’ve already established the fact that if bloggers and heavy internet users are the only ones buying your books, you’re not a huge bestseller, unless you came into the publishing business with your celebrity status already established.]
In the past, I’ve done (and still do) a lot of different things to promote my own books. Make book trailers. Print and mail swag. Go to cons. Sign and speak at bookstores. Sign stock at bookstores. Tweet. Blog. Facebook. Live chat. Give away advance copies. Give away already released books, foreign editions, and chocolate. Answer three zillion interview questions. Let my characters answer questions. Post play lists. Write essays. Participate in blog tours. But I’ve never been able to see a single bump in sales from any of those things, unless those things also coincided with a new release date.
I’ll say that again: I’ve never seen ANY proof that any of that stuff bumps up my sales, unless they’re done in conjunction with a new release.
What does that tell you? It tells me that the only thing that I—as the author—can do to increase sales is to write more books. And write good books, so that readers are eager for the next one. That’s because a traditionally published book, available both in hard copy in book stores and in e-form in ebook stores will reach MANY more people that I could ever personally reach online.
Does that change when it’s the publisher promoting, rather than the author? Yes. OMG-holy-wow-yes! it changes. Publishers have more money, a bigger voice, more connections, and entire teams of experts whose job it is to make books into bestsellers. By taking out one ad, a publisher can reach thousands more people than I could reach in a month of my heaviest online promotion. Publishers can get books reviewed not just by bloggers, but by review journals and newspapers. They can get books into libraries. They can get books seen, both in physical book stores and in online book stores, not to mention all the specialty markets like airports and grocery stores. They can get books shelved face out (which catches the eye) or near the register at B&N.
I can’t do any of that, and any one of those things will get a book more exposure (and, in theory, more sales) than anything I could do on my own. The evidence? Stray, my debut novel, got a bit of that kind of exposure. It debuted on the USA Today extended list, way before I had any kind of online following. I wasn’t yet Tweeting, or FBing, or live chatting. I’d never signed books at a con or a signing. I hadn’t sent out any swag and couldn’t seem to make people take the swag I’d had printed. I had a blog with about 400 followers. That’s it.
Rogue had some of that publisher-driven exposure. It debuted on the NYT extended list. However, it’s sold fewer copies than Stray has, even though my internet presence increased between those two releases.
But even that kind of exposure doesn’t always work. And we have no way of knowing why that is. There’s just no way to tell what’s going to be a hit, and what’s not. Some books get a lot of attention, but sell badly. Some are runaway hits, with very little promotion. And many books debut on bestseller lists because of a nice one-week velocity in sales, but then slope off and never sell in “major” numbers.
My point is this: no one knows why some books hit it big, and others go unnoticed. If there was a magical formula, we would all use it to make sure that every book is a massive bestseller. But it doesn’t work that way.
I wish I could say that quality is the key—that the best books become the biggest sellers. Alas, it doesn’t work that way either. In part, because quality is subjective. Who hasn’t read a big bestseller and come away wondering what on earth the rest of the world (and legions of fans) is thinking? Who hasn’t read a wonderful book no one else seems to have heard of?
It makes no sense. It can’t be predicted. There are no guarantees. And I’ve seen no evidence that hours spent online establishing my “presence” can actually make me a huge success.
So, then, why do I spend so much time online, giving stuff away, chatting with my readers and writer friends, blogging my thoughts and updates, updating my website, and answering interview questions?
- Because it can’t possibly hurt.
- Because at least the basics (release dates, covers, etc…) have to be available to readers. (This is a different issue than active online promotion.)
- Because it’s encouraged by my publisher.
- Because I work at home, alone, so you guys are my company water-cooler moments.
- Because it’s fun.
And that last one is the big one. I like chatting with people online. I like giving things away. I like posting snippets of my works in progress and seeing the opinions filter in. If I didn’t like it–if my online presence was more work than fun–I wouldn’t do so much of it. That’s why I never require people to follow me or retweet my contests, to be eligible. (Note: that is often a requirement of my publisher-hosted online events.)
So…there’s some food for thought, for all of you beginner writers out there who are convinced that an internet presence can mean the difference between average sales and bestsellerdom. Your time is honestly better spent writing that next book than agonizing over how many Twitter or FB followers you have.
*I define “legitimate” Twitter followers as those who follow you, even if you don’t follow them back, and who were not required to follow you to enter a contest. People who follow you for those two reasons probably are not actually interested in reading what you have to say. They only want to raise their own number of followers.